Archive | September, 2013

Asking the right questions as a key to effective communication

26 Sep

There are many more things we do not know than we do know. More often than not, this ignorance stems from a simple fact that we have not been asked or have not asked ourselves the relevant questions. Questions can be very impactful in that they make us think about a certain issue we would not have considered otherwise. They allow us to put two and two together and come up with completely new insights. This post elaborates on the topic of asking the right questions, they role in effective communication and rounds up the topic of helping explored in the previous two blog posts.

In the previous two posts I wrote about three possible types of helping relationship (see here) and about the importance of building a balanced relationship with the person we are communicating with (see here). Questions play a crucial role in any helping relationship and in communication as such. As mentioned before, they firstly allow us to learn new things. Secondly, by asking somebody a question we demonstrate our interest in the other person and in the issues they are facing thus showing them our respect and building mutual trust. Finally, a well phrased question asked at a right time can very effectively influence someone’s thinking and make them realise new things. There are many types of questions and many ways of describing those types; it is however always important to keep in mind that the form greatly shapes thinking process of the person we are communicating with and we should therefore choose it carefully.

One of the simplest, but nevertheless very important, ways to classify questions is into open-ended and close-ended ones. Open-ended questions usually start with How, Why, What etc. and they prompt the other person to answer freely depending on what they feel is the most relevant thing to say. Close-ended questions give us very specific, usually yes-no answers. While close-ended questions are great to confirm or otherwise a hypothesis we might have, they are quite restrictive in their nature. Open ended questions are usually a more effective and useful communication tool.

Edgar Schein in his books on helping (mentioned in my earlier blog posts) puts a great emphasis on active inquiry, asking the right questions at the right time, as an effective way to communicate with and help others. He distinguishes three main types of inquiry – pure inquiry, exploratory inquiry and confrontive inquiry. They are all open ended questions. Each type is useful for different purpose and at a different point during an interaction.

Pure inquiry

The objective of pure inquiry is to learn more about the issue at hand as the other person sees it without influencing thinking of the person in any way. Being silent is often the most effective way to start as it lets the person bring up whatever she feels to be most important. Then we can ask questions such as:

What is the situation?
Can you tell me what is going on?
What is happening?
Can you give me some examples?
Tell me more…

Notice that these questions do not suggest any direction the person should explore. They are therefore very useful at the very beginning of a conversation as they allow us to better understand what is happening and to dispel any false assumptions we might have had before (we naturally recall what we know about an issue at hand when we hear about it and make certain assumptions about what is for example causing it not paying attention to the fact that this situation might be different and therefore that our assumptions might not be applicable). In terms of building an balanced relationship with the other person as mentioned in the earlier blog post, pure inquiry is a great way of doing so for it shows interest and clearly demonstrates an unbiased intention to understand what is happening.

Exploratory inquiry

When in exploratory inquiry mode, we start to steer the conversation in certain directions but still refrain from presenting our own ideas about what the other person should do. We can focus on (1) feelings and reactions, (2) hypotheses and causes or (3) actions taken or contemplated. We can ask questions such as:

(1) How did you feel about that?
What was your reaction?
How did others react?
(2) Why do you think it happened?
Why did you (or somebody else) do that?
(3) What did you do about it?
What are you going to do?
What options do you have?
What do you think you should do?

Notice that compared to pure inquiry, the questions here suggests a direction of further conversation but do not contribute any specific content. They can be used after we have learned more about the situation using pure inquiry questions and only once we have developed some level of mutual trust with the other person. If asked too early, the other person might become uncomfortable or get defensive if asked these questions.

Confrontive inquiry

During this last type of inquiry we can share our ideas about what we think the other person should do and ask them what they think about it. We can ask questions such as:

Did you …do something..?
Did you consider… ?
Have you thought about …?
Could/can you do…?

Here we are suggesting the direction as well as the content of further discussion. In doing so we directly confront the other person about something specific and as such run the risk of the person starting to feel even more uncomfortable and get even more defensive than during exploratory inquiry. We should use these types of questions only once we have developed a balanced and trusting relationship with the other person to avoid these pitfalls. Once we have done so however, confrontive inquiry is a great way of steering somebody in a certain direction and doing so in a much gentler way than simply saying do X, Y, Z.

Unless we are talking to a person we already know well and that trusts us, it is very important to start with pure inquiry then move onto exploratory and only then to confrontive inquiry. The differences might appear to be very subtle but from my own experience, our minds subconsciously react to them very strongly. It varies with situations as to when is the best time to switch from one to another but we should always think about how well developed our relationship with the other person is and phrase our questions accordingly. Try it next time somebody asks you for help or just wants to talk to you about something. Alternatively, try following similar steps if you want somebody to do something and you want them do have a real ownership of what you want them to do.

Note: Apart from being able to ask the right questions, being able to listen effectively is an equally important skill. See my older post of effective listening here. Additionally, Schein recommends visualising what the other person is saying as a very effective way to listen. I often do it myself and it really helps me to focus on and understand what the person is saying.

One-upmanship and the economics of social interaction

18 Sep

Sometimes we come across people whom we attentively listen to and appreciate whatever they say while at other times we feel like dismissing everything somebody else says. Why is it so? This has been one of my biggest questions over the past few years. How come some people can put their thoughts across in a way such that others mostly agree with what they are saying while other people present themselves in a way such that others try to refute anything they say? This blog post offers some answers and also serves as a continuation to my previous post on helping.

A possible answer to this question is that we simply like listening to people who say what we agree with and dislike listening to people who say what we do not agree with. This, however, does not necessarily have to be true for two main reasons. Firstly, we can enjoy listening to a person who offers a different perspective, and do so attentively, for that is how our knowledge expands and we arrive to better solutions. Secondly, by claiming that we agree or disagree with what a person is saying we make an assumption that we actually understand what the person is saying in the first place. The problem here is that we often do not even attempt to fully understand what the other person is trying to tell us.

Regardless on our intentions, we all find ourselves at times dismissing what somebody is saying before we fully grasp what they are trying to tell us. This implies that the actual content of a message is often secondary to the form in which it is presented in determining whether others accept it or not. In other words, how the other person makes us feel during the communication process is more important than what the person actually says. This is where the concepts of one-upmanship and the economics of social interaction became relevant and these will be explored next.

Edgar Schein in his recent book Helping: How to Offer, Give and Receive Help notes that while there are few cultural universals, anthropologists agree that all societies are stratified and that all social behaviour is reciprocal. This has several important consequences.

In terms of stratification it implies that people inherently do not have equal positions relative to each other. This is certainly true on the societal level where people can be stratified e.g. by acquired positions of power, merit, economic status or in some societies by caste. But it is also true in day to day human interaction where people behave in various ways and adopt various roles. In doing so they claim certain amount of value and at the same time are ready to give some value back to the person they are interacting with depending on the roles they are in. It is the balance (or its absence) between these two social ‘transactions’ that determines how we perceive a relationship. If a relationship is not balanced, feeling of tension and unease arises which hinders the communication process.

The perils of being one-up

There can be a lack of balance for two main reasons. Firstly, it is the difference in relative standing of the two people in a society or secondly, and often more importantly, the difference between how much value one receives and offers relative to what he expects to receive and is expected to offer. By value we mean here the amount of respect we show or receive from the other person or as the Chinese call it, the face we give or receive. One-upmanship then refers to occasions when we claim more value that we should (we put ourselves one-up and the other person one-down) or to situations which implicitly put us one-up and other person one-down whether it was our intention or not. One such situation always occurs for example at the beginning of any helping relationship when the helper is put one-up (by being asked to help) and the person requesting help one-down (by needing help) relative to each other. This puts a strain on the relationship and makes the person who is one-down focus all his attention on regaining his status relative to the other person at the expense of trying to understand the message being communicated.

To answer our initial question therefore, whether we attentively listen to what the other person is saying or not is dependent on how equitable our relationship with that person is. If the person puts himself one-up and makes us feel one-down, we focus most of our attention on putting ourselves one-up or the person one-down to restore the balance. This can translate into us dismissing whatever the person says regardless of how sound his arguments are. On the other hand, if we feel respected and we perceive the relationship to be equitable, we are willing to appreciate even ideas that go contrary to ours and are not afraid of a potential loss of face if we change our initial position.

In terms of reciprocity, anything we do or do not do, consciously or subconsciously, is interpreted by and has an effect on the person we are interacting with and prompts him to react somehow. It is therefore important to think about how our actions contribute to building an equitable relationship and plan them accordingly. One way of doing so is showing respect and building mutual trust. There are multiple ways of doing so and one of them, pure inquiry, as Schein calls it, will be explored in the next blog post.

To summarize so far, it is how the other person makes us feel that determines if we are going to listen to him or not. If we feel valued and being treated with respect we are more likely to fully appreciate what the other person is saying. A crucial factor determining if we feel this way or not is whether we perceive the person to be trying to put himself one-up and makes us feel one-down. People often adopt certain communication style subconsciously not realising that however good their intentions might be, if they are making the other person feel one-down, their effort is not nearly as impactful as it could have been had they adopted a different style. Next time you are communicating with others, try therefore to think how you are making the other people feel and focus on building an equitable relationship.